MBL Creates Portal for Online Macroscope To Explore Life's Mysteries
Woods Hole MA (SPX) Feb 27, 2008
The first 30,000 pages of a massive online Encyclopedia of Life (EOL) have been unveiled as scientists assemble for the prestigious Technology, Entertainment and Design (TED) Conference in Monterey, California. Intended as a tool for scientists and policymakers and a fascinating resource for anyone interested in the living world, the EOL is being developed by a unique collaboration between scientists and the general public.
By making it easy to compare and contrast information about life on Earth, the resulting compendium has the potential to provide new insights into many of life's secrets.
"The EOL provides an extraordinary window onto the living world, one that will greatly accelerate and expand the potential for biological and biomedical discovery," says Gary G. Borisy, director and chief executive officer of the Marine Biological Laboratory (MBL) in Woods Hole, Mass., and a member of the EOL Steering Committee and Distinguished Advisory Board.
The EOL is the effort of a consortium that includes the MBL, Harvard University, the Smithsonian Institution, the Field Museum of Chicago, the Biodiversity Heritage Library, and Missouri Botanical Garden; with initial funding provided by the MacArthur and Sloan Foundations.
In essence, EOL will be a microscope in reverse, or "macroscope," helping users to discern large-scale patterns. By aggregating information on Earth's estimated 1.8 million known species, scientists say the EOL could, for example, help map vectors of human disease, reveal mysteries behind longevity, suggest substitute plant pollinators for a swelling list of places where honeybees no longer provide that service, and foster strategies to slow the spread of invasive species.
Most importantly, the EOL will be a foundational resource for helping to conserve the species already known and to identify millions of additional species that haven't yet been described or named. At its core is the knowledge about the world's species that has been discovered by scientists over the last 250 years. By putting this information all together in one place, EOL hopes to accelerate our understanding of the world's remaining biodiversity.
The MBL has played a major role in developing the Encyclopedia of Life, which was officially launched in the spring of 2007. The EOL Biodiversity Informatics Group, based at the MBL and led by David J. Patterson, created the software for the EOL Web portal, which goes live today with the first species pages (www.eol.org). Each species page is an aggregation, or "mash-up," of text, images, video, scientific data, and other information drawn from many different sources, and all vetted by scientific experts.
"With the launch of the first 30,000 species pages, we have proven the capacity to reach out to lots of different people and sources, draw out their information on species, and rebuild it as EOL pages that have great flexibility to suit different users," says Dr. Patterson. "And users can be assured it is accurate, reliable information. Now that we have done this with 30,000 species, we can do it for the 1.8 million known species on Earth."
The Marine Biological Laboratory-Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution Library (MBLWHOI Library) is also an important player through its leadership role in the EOL Scanning and Digitization Group. To date, this group has scanned more than 2.5 million pages of text and images on species which provide fully searchable content to the EOL. The group plans to scan 1 million volumes of biodiversity literature in the next five years, and also provide RSS feeds for relevant scientific journals to the EOL.
"For the first time in history, the core of our natural history and herbaria library collections is being made available to a truly global audience," says Cathy Norton, director of the MBLWHOI Library and deputy director of the Biodiversity Heritage Library consortium, which operates the EOL scanning group.
"Ninety-five percent of the world's species are in developing countries in South America and Africa that have not had access to this literature. This will bring information about species to the very people who live where the species do!"
As of today, EOL's infrastructure includes placeholder pages for 1 million species, of which 30,000 have been populated with detailed information derived from comprehensive, authoritative compilations available for some taxonomic groups (e.g., FishBase, AmphibiaWeb).
In addition, about two dozen highly developed multimedia pages are presented as examples of what to expect in time throughout the EOL. Three of these multimedia pages were developed by scientists at the MBL, who are experts on the species described by the page: the microbe Cafeteria roenbergensis (page developed by Dr. Patterson); the bacteria Wolbachia pipientis (by Seth Bordenstein); and the Australian Giant Cuttlefish (by Roger Hanlon and Kendra Buresch).
Feedback on the first 30,000 pages will shape the ultimate design and functionality of all 1.8 million pages, scheduled for completion by 2017. It will also help inform priorities for content development.
"It is exciting to anticipate the scientific chords we might hear once 1.8 million notes are brought together through this instrument," says Jim Edwards, Executive Director of the EOL.
"Potential EOL users are professional and citizen scientists, teachers, students, media, environmental managers, families and artists. The site will link the public and scientific community in a collaborative way that's without precedent in scale."
Starting later this year, the public will be able to contribute text, videos, images, and other information about a species. The best of this information will be incorporated into the authenticated pages.
"There are very many species for which we do not have high quality images or text. Think of these pages as invitations to contribute to EOL," says Dr. Edwards.
The information management system that the Biodiversity Informatics Group has developed for the EOL draws from two prior efforts at the MBL: uBio, a database of taxonomic names and names-based services and tools developed in 2000 by David Remsen and Patrick Leary of the MBLWHOI Library and by Dr. Patterson; and micro*scope, the first application of uBio outside of the MBLWHOI Library, developed by Dr. Patterson.
"We have been creating the unique system of managing information on organisms that underpins the EOL since 2000," says Dr. Patterson. "We didn't invent the term 'taxonomic intelligence,' which is the idea that you can emulate the skills and abilities of taxonomists within information systems. But the MBL was the first to develop and apply the informatics tools to do so. And the EOL is this concept writ very large."
Another group at the MBL will take the EOL's "macroscopic" powers to look at patterns of aging across organisms, in an effort to identify genes or other factors involved in aging. This group, called Biology of Aging Across the Spectrum of Life, is funded by The Ellison Medical Foundation and is directed by Indra Neil Sarkar.
"The EOL will have a truly transformational impact on biology," says Dr. Patterson. "Scientists will be able to move towards considerably more global questions, and will have the tools and the data to answer them."
"The symphony we are creating is amazing," adds Cathy Norton.
The rapid progress on the EOL to date was congratulated by Harvard's E.O. Wilson, University Professor Emeritus, who articulated the need for a dynamic modern portrait of biodiversity in a widely read essay in 2003. His letter in 2005 to the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation resulted in a $10 million seed grant to start the EOL, soon complemented by a further $2.5 million from the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation.
In March 2007, Wilson was one of the recipients of a coveted TED prize for his work in documenting and understanding the world's biodiversity. In his acceptance speech, Wilson asked TED attendees to help him develop an encyclopedia of life. Today, Dr. Wilson is seeing the realization of his wish.
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